Paradigms of Educational Research Reflection

The task of synthesizing the readings surrounding the conceptual history of research paradigms is daunting, especially as it relates to making observations and recommendations concerning school reform. This semester we have traced notions of time, agency, the citizen, reason and statistical categories as they have slowly permeated global thinking, tracing the lives of grids of intelligibility that both reveal and obfuscate our world. We have seen faith in mathematics and reason overtake faith in anything can cannot be measured numerically, with the results of these measurements turning into objects that in turn nudge the culture that constructed them in unpredicted ways. We have seen entire paradigms of society and education come into being, attach to concrete actors and therefore become invisible actors themselves. In the next few pages I would like to look at two specific areas within higher education that exist as though they were objective truth, failing to acknowledge their own recent construction and internal limitations. Though this process leads to more questions than prescriptions, it is quite possible that the simple task of deconstruction will lead to insight. To begin, let us look at the notions that have answered the question: What is the purpose of Education?

In the 1900s, the democratic ideal and progressivism were beginning to take root within the popular vernacular and especially within the thoughts of education leaders such as Harper and Dewey. Midwestern universities such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Chicago were incorporating the “German Science model,” first seen at John Hopkins. Within a republic such as the United States, the citizen becomes an active agent in the governance and policy of the nation. The university therefore becomes a place to produce the leaders and guardians of its society’s democratic ideology. The university, in this view, is to “promote civic responsibilities, enable progress, promote human happiness, and provide policies, theories, and programs to grapple with the urban moral disorder” (Popkewitz Unpublished). According to Harper, the university acts as “an institution of government, the guide of the people, and as an ally of humanity in its struggle for advancement” (Harper 1905). Here the tone of education and democracy as a savior to society begins to become apparent.

Dewey makes the link between democracy and salvation even more clear as he states that democracy is not simply a political theory but a divine revelation (Dewey 1892). If democracy is a revelation from God himself, then Harper believed the university is its priest. “The university, like the priest, leads those who place themselves under its influence, whether they live within or without the university walls, to enter into close communion with their own souls – a communion possible only where opportunity is offered for meditative leisure” (Harper 1905).

With these two fathers of contemporary education policy, the union between government, education and a transcendent ideology has been made complete. To borrow from the title of an essay by Popkewitz, the university is a prophet, science is its messenger and democracy is its revelation. It is appropriate at this juncture to ask critical questions about the nature of this tightly defined spiritual calling of education. For example, what exactly is liberty? What “civic duties” will enable the individual to have such liberty? Who will the teachers and designers of this education be? How do these specific notions of progress interrelate with contrasting views? Does the faith of the university in itself and its practices lead to a blinding pride being transferred to its students? Does the belief that the university creates the leaders of society lead to a manipulation of what is taught so that the contemporary ideologies of power are simply replicated to another generation?

Another paradigm that heavily influences the practices and policies of education is the notion of statistics as a tool for social reform. The field of social statistics was conceived out of a desire to enable liberty and eliminate poverty in society (Desrosieres 1991). As the faith in reason has increased, social phenomena are translated into subjects that can be studied with numerical means, allowing for analysis to be performed on the abstraction.

In terms of education, student learning is one such attribute of the school that has been made numerical. Here at the university of Wisconsin, students are presented with various forms of assessment during their time of studies. These include paper and pencil math/science tests, essays, projects, and in large or distance classes, multiple choice and true/false tests are a favorite because computers can easily perform the grading. Usually the tests are performed in the context of a large room, in silence, each student working alone for a period of an hour or two with no outside contact or collaboration. It is absolutely an individual endeavor.

Here my first question rises: Why is testing almost always done as an individual when the practice of most every discipline is done in the context of a community?

Assessments require a rubric in order to quantify translate student work into a numerical value, a percentage. This single number is a proxy for student mastery, a percentage of perfection. In some cases, this number is corrected with a ‘curve,” a term derived from “The Bell Curve,” a popular psychology book that relates intelligence to social/economic condition by separating the elite, average and below average citizen (Herrstein 1994). This curve is used to correct for errors in testing by making sure that a few amount of students perform poorly and very well, and most students fall in the middle. The test values of a particular student’s work is processed through a weighted-average calculation and converted into an alphabetical symbol that puts each student into of seven categories (‘A’, ‘BC’, ‘D’, ‘F,’ etc.) from excellence to failure. These symbols are then converted back into numerical values into another weighted average to arrive at the final GPA number. The endgame of all this analysis really comes down to creating a system where students can be sorted into categories for the purpose of awards, acceptance into additional schooling or jobs.

Through the numerical process of abstracting all of a students work into a single value in the range of 0.00 to 4.00, comparisons can be made as to the value of the students learning. We have made a student into a number, and rarely is the translation questioned. As Hacking might explain, we have invented types of students because we have developed equalities between them. If only the numbers are viewed, student A with a GPA of 3.0 and student B with a GPA of 3.0 are the same, and different than student C with a GPA of 2.0 (Hacking 1986). And though the reality of the grade point average is purely constructed, it is attached to the decision-making processes of real institutions, thereby becoming real itself (Desrosieres 1991).

Where does one begin in reforming these practices? Do they require reform or is the abstraction process useful enough to give a benefit that outweighs its error? Can the numerical abstraction of student performance be replaced by something else that provides the same value or is the very notion of reducing an entire student to a number itself flawed?

One of the facilitating aspects of a paradigm is that, by definition, it colors and shapes the way we view the world. A paradigm may be impossible to authentically see, like a black hole that can only be observed by the way it affects its surroundings. It may not be possible to even conduct the research of paradigms without the influence of the scientific, sociological, philosophical influence of the enlightenment and a particular notion of history and agency. This said, I do believe that the endeavor of understanding the foundations of educational research and reform is not in vain, only that much work would be required to answer these questions intelligently.


Desrosieres, Alain (1991). How to Make Things Which Hold Together: Social Science, Statistics and the State. Discourses On Society: The Shaping of the Social Science Disciplines. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Dewey, J. (1892/1967-1990). Christianity and democracy. The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953. The Electronic Edition. The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898. Springfield, IL: Southern Illinois University.

Hacking (1986). Making Up People. Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought. Standford University Press.

Harper, William Rainey (1905). The trend in higher education. The University of Chicago Press.

Herrstein, Richard J. and Murray, Charles (1994). The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Free Press.


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